Sports Hockey

ZEISBERGER

Leafs-Sabres a tale of two rebuilds

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Sabres' Justin Falk (left) and Maple Leafs' Josh Leivo (centre) battle in front of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner during NHL action in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2017. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun)

Sabres' Justin Falk (left) and Maple Leafs' Josh Leivo (centre) battle in front of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner during NHL action in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2017. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun)

On the warm Buffalo evening last summer that Auston Matthews was selected first overall by the Maple Leafs in a boo-filled KeyBank Center, a small pocket of Toronto fans sitting in the stands proudly showcased their T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Auston 20:16.”

“He’s going to be our saviour!” one of them yelled, trying to have his voice heard over the loud jeers of the locals who were anti-anything-Toronto-related.

Truth be told, the loyal sports-loving zealots of Buffalo have plenty of legitimate fodder to despise The Big Smoke when it comes to the world of fun and games.

Not so long ago, rocker Jon Bon Jovi was for a sliver of time part of a group that attempted to buy the Queen City’s beloved Bills with the intention of moving the franchise two hours up the QEW. Fortunately, Western New York billionaire Terry Pegula stepped in to purchase the team in 2014, but not without Buffalo sports fans harbouring plenty of bitterness at Toronto and, specifically, Bon Jovi, who was described in a subsequent article in New York Magazine as the “Most Hated Man in Buffalo.”

One year later, the Sabres wined and dined free-agent coach Mike Babcock and were so encouraged at their chances to land the former Detroit Red Wings bench boss that preliminary plans were in place to introduce him to Buffalo media.

But a last-minute change of heart left the Sabres as the jilted bride waiting at the altar while Babcock, citing family reasons, opted for Toronto’s ground-breaking eight-year, $50-million offer, one believed to be similar to that tabled by Buffalo.

Then came the coup de grace in 2016, when Matthews was picked by the rival Leafs right on Buffalo soil. For Sabres supporters, this was the deepest cut of all.

For the previous two seasons, Buffalo had finished dead last in the NHL standings, yet each time was stripped of the right to pick first overall in the draft because of a bad bounce of a ping pong ball in the NHL’s draft lottery system.

Of note: While second-overall pick Jack Eichel certainly appears to be a star in the making for the Sabres, the fact that the Edmonton Oilers leapfrogged them for the top selection in 2015 cost Buffalo the services of generational player Connor McDavid.

Now here were the Leafs on this memorable evening of June 24, 2016, calling out Matthew’s name as the first player taken in a draft — the type of announcement the Sabres so badly had wanted to make the previous two years.

To call Matthews a “saviour” was a bit over the top, but there is no doubt he has met expectations, if not exceeded them. As for his team, it certainly has done that, rocketing into third place in the Atlantic Division and making a strong bid to reach the playoffs for just the second time in 13 years despite many nights of having seven rookies in the lineup.

To that end, on Saturday, exactly 274 days after Matthews became a Maple Leaf, he and his teammates will return to the building in which he was drafted to face a Sabres team that is a whopping 13 points behind Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings.

Call it a Tale of Two Rebuilds.

Slog through the layers of the Matthews hype and the contributions of all the rookies — from fellow former first-rounders Mitch Marner and William Nylander, to Russian free agent Nikita Zaitsev, to Toronto-area natives Zack Hyman and Connor Brown — are evident. Matthews is one goal away from tying Wendel Clark’s franchise rookie record for goals (34), while Nylander set a team freshman mark for most consecutive games with a point (10) in Thursday’s 4-2 win over New Jersey.

All in all, three first-year players — Matthews (60 points), Marner (57) and Nylander (56) — lead the team in scoring.

And if that comes as a surprise to you, it certainly doesn’t for veterans such as Tyler Bozak.

“I think that’s what maybe the outside world thought — that maybe we weren’t going to be great and it was going to be a young team,” Bozak said. “But I know every guy in this room believed we could win and get into the playoffs and do some damage. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of work to do to get there. But we like where we’re at.

“We knew seeing the young guys at camp that they had the ability to step up and play right away. They’ve all done a great job and we’ve all come together as a good team.

“The nice thing is, we’ve had all our lines contributing and I think that’s what we need to win. You obviously don’t expect a young first-year guy or second-year guy to step in and do what these guys have done. And they’re only going to get better. It’s exciting times around here.”

The reverse is true in Buffalo, where various reports of a disconnect between coach Dan Bylsma and his players have surfaced. While Babcock is starting to get mentioned as a potential coach of the year candidate, Bylsma has three more seasons left on his five-year deal, while GM Tim Murray was inked to a multi-year extension on the eve of the Sabres’ season opener.

With 50 points in 53 games, Eichel has been outstanding, while Sam Reinhart continues to improve. Secondary scoring, however, remains an issue. While both teams have allowed 214 goals, the Sabres have scored 42 fewer times than the Leafs.

As for some of the Sabres’ prospects, Buffalo News columnist Mike Harrington wondered after a 4-3 loss to the Leafs on Jan. 17 just when the likes of Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching would start significantly chipping in to Buffalo’s efforts. While injuries have played a role, those three have combined for just five goals for the Sabres this season.

Still, maybe the chasm between the two teams isn’t as wide as you might think. On Feb. 18, the Sabres were just one point behind the Leafs. In the five subsequent weeks, Toronto widened the gap by 12 more.

“We thought we’d be much closer and fighting for that last (playoff) spot right now, especially when we were coming out of the break,” Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly said on Friday.

“With Toronto, there’s always hype around them. They’re one of the most talked-about teams in hockey. It’s a rivalry.”

Then O’Reilly delivered a sentiment that likely echoed that of Sabres fans everywhere.

“I want to beat them,” O”Reilly said of the Leafs, who defeated Buffalo 2-1 on Nov. 3 in their only previous meeting at KeyBank Center this season.

“I don’t want to see them in the playoffs.”

With two home games still remaining against Toronto, here’s Buffalo’s chance to help keep that from happening.

SABRES' TOP D-MAN SITS

It’s the type of tradeoff the Maple Leafs will gladly take.

Sure, being without the suspended Roman Polak for Saturday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo will strip Mike Babcock’s team of a physical blue line presence in a building where the Leafs historically haven’t had much success.

At the same time, the Sabres will be missing a defenceman, too — arguably their best one. Rasmus Ristolainen, who is tied for third in team scoring with 44 points, will begin serving his three game suspension for an incident involving the Penguins’ Jake Guentzel earlier this week.

Ristolainen was told by league officials that Guentzel did not have the puck when the Sabres defenceman hit him.

“I don’t know what I can really do different there because it was a split-second, half-second,” Ristolainen told reporters in Buffalo on Friday. “It’s a quick time and I was skating backward.

“It’s really hard to stop there and I don’t think I can. Unfortunately the play happened and he got injured.”

While Ristolainen won't be available, the Sabres are expected to welcome back defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and forwards Kyle Okposo and William Carrier from injury.

A NEW MINDSET

Wins in Buffalo have been as scarce as Maple Leaf playoff appearances over the years.

With an all-time record of 28-70-6 (.298 winning %) in the Queen City, Memorial Auditorium and KeyBank Center have been houses of horror for Toronto teams dating back to 1970.

But this 2016-17 version of the Leafs isn’t buying it. For a team full of young kids, Toronto’s 2-1 win in Buffalo on Nov. 3 opened what they hope is a new chapter in the Golden Horseshoe rivalry.

“We’ve got a ton of new faces and a new mindset,” veteran Tyler Bozak said when asked about playing in Buffalo. “There’s a new group in here. We’ve kind of put all that stuff from the past behind and turned a new page here.

“It’s nice to be part of.”

mzeisberger@postmedia.com

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